“There’s a viable nontoll option on the table. They can stop bellyaching and give us our nontoll road.”
By Josh Baugh
San Antonio Express-News
When Tommy Adkisson calls for a vote Monday to strip toll roads from Bexar County’s future, he’ll have support from hundreds of area residents expected to pack the Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting.
But it appears that he won’t enjoy the same level of backing from his 19-member MPO board. Adkisson, the chairman, has a handful of allies on the board, but he has faced a full-court press from his opponents, who he says have spread a “sky is falling” fear among the decision-makers.
“I have never allowed myself to become a hostage for the highway lobby,” said Adkisson, a Bexar County commissioner. “Right now, they’re going for the gold, and I’m going for what I think is right.”
Adkisson is charging ahead with the meeting, which will be held — uncharacteristically — in the evening and on the far North Side, ground zero for the toll road debate. Normally, MPO meetings are held the fourth Monday of each month at 1:30 p.m. near downtown, the audience mostly composed of lobbyists and representatives of construction and engineering companies.
Terri Hall, founder of anti-toll Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, has said the goal of the venue change was to shift the power to the voters.
The changes worry those who don’t want to see the current plan changed.
State Sen. Jeff Wentworth, an MPO member, said he’s seen politicians waver under pressure.
“If we counted votes right this minute, in the peace and calm of this room, we don’t think she has the votes,” the San Antonio Republican said, referring to Hall, who’s known as the architect behind the proposal. “But I’ve been in office for nearly 30 years as commissioner, as a state rep, as a state senator, and I’ve been to these public meetings.
“Although I’m a scrawny little guy, I’ve got apparently a lot stronger backbone than a lot of my colleagues had. And you put them in a room with a whole bunch of really pissed-off constituents who are voters, and they’ll switch their votes.”
Adkisson and Hall’s proposal calls for removing tolls from U.S. 281 and Loop 1604 and drastically reducing the cost of construction to relieve congestion — from $475 million to $200 million on U.S. 281, and from $243 million to $200 million on Loop 1604.
Opponents of the plan say it would cause gridlock for generations because it only addresses U.S. 281 and a much smaller segment of Loop 1604.
MPO board members have asked for a side-by-side comparison of the toll and nontoll plans, but nobody has been able to provide one — in part because the proposal didn’t come from a sponsoring agency or with engineering reports and other vital information needed to evaluate it.
Hall and Adkisson would present a nontoll version of a 2005 plan that was halted by a lawsuit but could have been the area’s first toll road. That project, which had been contracted out, would have cost $78 million for 3 miles, making the cost per mile $26 million. Taking the project 7.8 miles to the county line, Hall said, would cost roughly $202 million.
“There’s a viable nontoll option on the table,” she said. “They can stop bellyaching and give us our nontoll road.”
At first, Adkisson and Hall balked when pressed for details on their proposal, saying they only offered a starting point for discussion and a policy shift. At an October MPO technical advisory committee meeting, Hall said she didn’t have a panel of engineers and was just a “housewife” being set up to be a scapegoat. Adkisson said his job as MPO chairman is to set a policy and see that it’s implemented.
But they’ve since strengthened their proposal by suggesting using the 2005 plan.
It’s unclear whether the MPO board will accept that plan as enough evidence that a nontoll plan is viable.
“Right now, I’m leaning towards not voting for the Terri Hall-Tommy Adkisson plan, simply because I’ve got nobody showing me any numbers as to whether their plan is real,” MPO member and County Commissioner Kevin Wolff said.
On the other hand, City Councilman Reed Williams, new to the MPO, said he’ll vote for the nontoll plan.
“I started looking at numbers — think about spending $440 million for 7 miles (on U.S. 281) — that’s a lot of money,” he said. “I think we have to come up with a lower-cost option there and something that’s not quite so grand.”
Janice Brown, the Texas administrator for the Federal Highway Administration, wrote in a letter to Adkisson that a full environmental impact statement must be conducted on the U.S. 281 corridor before additional capacity is added. Hall, whose group successfully sought a full EIS in a 2008 lawsuit, has argued that, based on her reading of the National Environmental Protection Act, that level of study — a three- to five-year process — isn’t necessary with a less-invasive, nontoll project.
Brown’s letter says otherwise.
“Any transportation improvement, tolled or nontolled, that addresses the long-term capacity needs of this corridor is likely to have potential impacts that warrant full environmental study in an EIS,” Brown wrote.
But Hall said she doesn’t see the letter as a loss in her fight. The letter contained two attachments that speak generally about when to apply each level of environmental scrutiny, and Hall says those prove she’s right.
“However, the original Jan Brown letter is basically saying they’re gun-shy about doing an (environmental assessment) because they’ve been sued twice on the project,” Hall said. “So we understand that. That’s not a problem.”
Regardless, the environmental review “is going to go more quickly and smoothly and not be contested in court” if a scaled-back nontoll version moves forward, Hall said.
Toll opponents have framed Monday’s meeting as a vote for or against tolls. Their counterparts — including some MPO board members, the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority and other local leaders — say it is about making a responsible vote based on sound data.
“We believe that the plan being promoted by Terri Hall and Tommy Adkisson makes no sense. It’s not thought out,” said Richard Perez, president of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and a former MPO chairman, during a recent San Antonio Express-News Editorial Board meeting. “What Tommy wants to do is not right.”
But Adkisson said he stands by his plan, contending that it’s for the “band of middle-class warriors with no special interest” who are looking to their government for help.
© 2009 San Antonio Express-News: www.mysanantonio.com
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